Disco Inferno

New York Nightclubs Fend Off Conflagration

Bomb, who has opened for WASP—a band that shares its road crew with Great White—adds, "Headline bands from the '80s tend to think they are really big stars and have a big ego and tend to think the laws of the world don't apply to them."

But other artists who perform with fire fear the catastrophe will bring about overzealous enforcement. Tyler Fyre, who wows CBGB, Remote Lounge, and Slipper Room crowds with his fire-breathing feats and runs the Lucky Devil Circus Sideshow, worries the city will go for a zero-tolerance policy. In the early '90s Fyre (real name: Tyler Fleet) lived and worked as an entertainment reporter in West Warwick, where he used to attend shows at the Station; he says he doesn't remember the place being a fire hazard. For the past six years, he's worked professionally with fire.

He was attending a conference called "MotionFest" for variety-show performers in Reno, Nevada, the day the Station's fire occurred, and says it was a topic of discussion among attendees. "It's gonna be that much harder to convince [nightclub owners] that what we do really is safe," he says.

Fire-breathing Tyler Fyre, former resident of West Warwick, Rhode Island
photo: Tyler Fyre
Fire-breathing Tyler Fyre, former resident of West Warwick, Rhode Island

Fyre notes that the city's fire codes in relation to fire-breathing are murky. "It's really one of the gray areas of the law," he says. "With pyrotechnics you need a licensed person, but for fire-eating, you do not. The law varies from place to place."

He says whether or not an act involving fire is safe is often left to the performer's judgment. "I was booked for a Christmas party," he recalls, "and there were paper streamers all over the place. I said I would not perform because there is a risk for everyone. Most of the time I would just alter my show to make it fit in the venue."

The video filmed during Great White's show by Rhode Island television reporter Brian Butler—who was, in an eerie coincidence, investigating the safety of nightclubs—shows that the soundproof foam just behind the Station's stage is what ignited, before flames engulfed the club in less than three minutes. And though some soundproofing is flameproof, Bob Leo says, "Whether it's flame-retardant or not, I don't want anything touching it."

If a New York venue wants pyrotechnics, a licensed person—trained (usually by the fire department itself) and certified by the state—is required to run the show. The venue also needs permission from the FDNY Explosives Unit, which approves the use of pyro only after a joint site inspection. The city also mandates that fire protection (extinguishers inside and, in some cases, fire trucks on hand outside) be available for the duration of the show. "The rules apply to nightclub shows, Broadway plays," and, says a fire department spokesperson, "venues as big as the Grammy Awards."

With the Station in ashes, the cycle has started again. The National Sprinkler Association is debating whether the country's buildings should be retrofitted with sprinklers. The WNYPA is "trying desperately to get standardized regulations through New York State," says Leo.

John Steinberg, president of the Pyrotechnics Guild International, says his organization is drafting "letters to fire marshals suggesting they require permits."

"This accident was completely unnecessary," adds Steinberg. "Pyrotechnics have been used at this rate for over 10 years. We've done it tens of thousands of times without hurting audiences. Pyrotechnics are an extremely safe theatrical device in the hands of a competent operator. In the hands of someone who doesn't comply with codes and doesn't know what they're doing, it's like letting someone who's never been trained fly an airplane. It's not even a matter of if—it's when," says Steinberg. "They are, guaranteed, going to crash."

Related Story:
"Magic Carpet Ride: Clubland Potentate David Marvisi Gets the Rug Pulled Out From Under Him" by Frank Owen

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